You are here

Expendables, The

The Expendables

Forget Gandhi, Bertrand Russell or Simone De Beauvoir:
you're all my heroes now

dir: Sylvester Stallone


I guess if someone absorbed and retained all the juicy goodness of crappy 80s action flicks, it was the guy who starred in most of them. And if there’s one person who can profit from perpetuating what he used to be good at, rather than doing anything remotely new, it’s Sylvester Stallone.

His last three films including this one are virtual monuments to himself (the other two being Rocky Balboa and the fourth Rambo flick creatively titled Rambo) and the time when he was one of the biggest action stars on the goddamn planet. But this flick, far moreso than the others, is more of a monument to the era itself and the trashy 80s action flicks that were so beloved by all.

By ALL. Don’t dispute me on this: I bet back in the day even the Pope, the Queen of England and the King of Siam were sitting around in their sweatpants watching video tapes of Red Heat or Cobra or Commando and drinking a six pack in between punching the air and screaming “YEEEEEAHHH” in full throated passion. It didn’t matter if there was no reason for shit to be exploding, or for a man with a gun to be walking around mowing down an army of faceless Hispanic goons without so much as a scratch on him: it was fun, apparently, and everyone had to like it or be sent to re-education camps for indoctrination. Maybe I remember the 80s differently to the rest of you, but I’m positive that all happened.

That golden era couldn’t last forever, and these films where jeeps would explode mid-air, or when cops would be killed days before retirement, and the villain’s headquarters would always blow up even if there was no earthly reason for such to happen, were shunted aside so that the comic stylings of Pauly Shore and Jim Carrey could come to the fore, and chick flicks as far as the eye could see were Steel Magnolia-ing and Fried Green Tomatoes-ing their way into our hearts and colons.

One man had the dream to bring us back to our glorious origins, to remind us of the time when men were men and preferred the company of men, and hot women waited patiently for their men, waiting until their men were good and ready to come home. Not like this present age of metrosexual confusion and sensitive discussions about one’s relationships.

Fuck that noise. This film proudly stands up and belches in the face of human progress. It yells “HELL YEAH!” and punches its fist through a bad guy’s head. It pisses powerfully all over the concept of good taste, narrative coherence, plot logic and sanity in its pursuit of action thrills.

And, I guess, it mostly delivers. It sets out to do exactly what it promises, and it exceeds even at the excesses that are on offer.

The one thing, and I feel churlish even being so ungrateful, the one area in which it falls down is that it doesn’t have wit buried under the cheesy dialogue. Instead, the dialogue is mostly flat and, dare I say it, the dumb sounding shit a bunch of lunkhead mercenaries probably would mumble about to each other. Stallone has deliberately set out not to wink at the audience, not to admit the absurdity of the entire enterprise, and it probably serves the film better. This isn’t a parody of action flicks: this is an action flick that exists as the epitome of dated action flicks without wanting at all to vary the formula.

Everything down to the insanely loud power guitar chord soundtrack basically makes the whole thing function as a flick that could have been a period piece. Except for a few bits of technology, you could almost dream that you were back there yourself basking in the radiance that was the 1980s.

It’s a bit of a lie to claim that Stallone collected up all the action heroes of the 80s and plopped them down in some last caper to remind people that they’re still alive. There’s no Jean Claude, there’s no Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris or Kurt Russell. Instead he has a couple of cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the rest are a bunch of nobodies.

Unless the names Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Eric Roberts conjure up visions of the action splendiferousness of a bygone era.

Maybe not, but he does bring Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and Jason Statham to the table. And, goddamn, the shit that they do to that metaphorical table...

The template is utterly generic in nature, so generic that it looks like it was generated by screenwriting software set to “Hispanic Banana Republic / Oily CIA Baddie”. Our heroes, despite being mercenaries, who, by their very nature and job description, kill for money, are actually decent fellows. We see them in the opening gunning down Somalian pirates, but they do it ethically. Humanely. When they’re blowing their bodies in half with high-powered automatic shotguns, they’re at least doing it with a song in their hearts and a spring in their step.

Except for giant Gunnar (Lundgren), who’s gone a bit nuts due to drugs. And the fact that he’s some lumbering Cro-Magnon giant. The team have to put him in his place before letting him go. It’s not you, it’s your drug addiction, buddy.

Who’s got the balls to reject a lumbering Swedish yeti? Stallone. Who’s got the balls to fight Lundgren? Jet Li.
[img_assist|nid=1287|title=Blood, testosterone, and a hell of a lot of human growth hormone went into the making of this picture|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=666]
Jet Li! The characters in this have generic, silly names, but Jet Li as Ying Yang, Jet Li! gets most of the dialogue, complaining about how much he needs money and how he deserves more money because he has to punch way above his weight, and whatever wounds he receives are bigger on his smaller body, and so he should be dually compensated.

What’s funniest to me is that, despite the unlikely manner in which these are some of the funniest lines in the film, Jet Li is actually doing comedic work in Hollywood films now.

What’s next: Jackie Chan as the romantic lead in a Julia Roberts rom-com? Chow Yun Fat playing Barack Obama in a biopic?

The world’s gone turvy topsy I tells ya. That’s all the characterisation Li’s character gets, but it hardly matters.

The unlikely named Lee Christmas (Statham) has one trait only: he was wronged by the girl he loved (Charisma Carpenter), and waits, patiently, for the chance to get his revenge on her by waiting for her current boyfriend to beat her up so that he can go and beat him up, thus proving the extent of her mistake and the depths of his love for her. Talk about a thankless role, and talk about fucked up gender politics…

Statham, out of all of the people in this flick, is probably the biggest action star at the moment. He’s been beating and shooting the ever-living fuck out of scores of hapless stunt men in both the Transporter and Crank franchises, and there’s no stopping him or his scenery-buggering ways. Sure, he’s no great actor, but none of the action gods in this flick were anything but great at playing action gods.

Bruce Willis? He’s the very definition of one note, but it’s a note we like. And Arnie? Arnold, in his brief scene, is still as wooden and unbelievable as always, though, I think his time in politics has taught him a little bit about projecting something even and especially when it’s bullshit.

The motorbike riding, tattoo-sharing, vaguely male bonded past the point of heterosexuality team of mercenaries is hired to do a job somewhere south of the border on some mythical island run by a crazy dictator (David Zayas).

How crazy is this dictator? For no reason evident to anyone, including probably the dictator, he decides he wants his crack force of soldiers to wear face paint, with a yellow lightning bolt in the middle, and black on either cheek?


He’s in the pocket of some oleaginous ex-CIA nut (Eric Roberts) who’s using the island to produce cocaine, and he has his soldiers stride around oppressing the people on the tiny island, not because he has to, but, hell, we all need something to do on a Saturday night, don’t we?

The team’s brief is to take out the dictator, but Barney (Stallone), after a conversation with a clearly deranged Mickey Rourke, who is literally playing a character called Tool, decides he wants to do the job because he wants to save a proud, beautiful Latina girl on the island called Sandra (Giselle Itie). In an admission that he’s a sixty-four-year-old man, and that despite the massive daily amounts of human growth hormone that he’s consuming to maintain his physique, he’s an old fucking man, Barney’s relationship with the damsel in distress is paternal rather than romantic. Thank Christ for that.

So, to help out this one girl, Barney and his friends essentially decide to kill everyone else on the island. There can’t have been that many people on it. It was tiny. Most of its population seemed to be soldiers, so once they find creative and gruesome ways to kill almost all of them, and then blow up the remaining ones, who’s left?

And the violence is totally over the fucking top, make no mistake about that. Bodies explode into chunks, people’s heads are exploded, and there’s even waterboarding going on.

I don’t remember any kittens being thrown into wheelie bins, or puppy’s noses being tweaked, but shit certainly gets intense.

They shoot, chop, snap and explode stacks upon stacks of soldiers, and the baddies are so nasty that you can’t help but look forward to their violent demise. I would argue that the close-up filming and shaky cam detracts from some of the scenes, which are even more frenetic than you can imagine, but I guess Stallone knows what he’s doing, because the net effect is a scene going over the top, being followed by a scene that tops even that, followed by a scene that tops etc etc.

It just keeps peaking and peaking, absurdly and passionately embracing everything that made those stupid action films so enjoyable, and cutting away anything else (characterisation, decent acting, logic, extraneous dialogue) that detracts from that objective.

In a supreme act of humility, Stallone doesn’t hog the limelight. He gives everyone in this strange but aggressively over the top flick time to shine, at, I would even argue, his own expense. It’s very selfless of the man. I’m not kidding. I may not remember a single line of dialogue any of them said, but I can remember with crystal clarity what their contribution was to the mayhem on display.

Having said all that I’m surprised the flick has succeeded like it has, because I thought no-one really wanted action flicks like this anymore. It could be that it’s because of the dearth of films this straight-forward in approach, and this lacking in slickness or sophistication, that it succeeds. If they were still making lots of succinct, brutally violent action flicks with stacks of ‘splosions and tits (that weren’t going straight to DVD), maybe it wouldn’t have popped so big in the pop cultural consciousness.

Whatever the reason, it’s certainly not a classic for the ages (the lack of smart lines sinks it, the odd moments of pained dialogue, and Mickey Rourke’s deranged presence and mumbling delivery), but it was insane enough to be a diverting way to spend an hour and a half of my day, that’s for sure.

7 times Stallone killed the population of Guatemala for this flick, and for your sins, out of 10

“What happened to you?”
-“It's too sad to talk about.” – Poignant moments between real men, The Expendables.